By Priyanka Uchil
In the subcontinent, everything is hereditary.
First there was The Big Bang. Then there was the struggle for independence. And then there was the dot-com boom.
This would be the brief history of the subcontinent, if there was a three-sentence limit to history. To the discerning eye, the middle stratum of any civil society is frustrated with its lot in life. Affluence doesn’t know what living without conditioned air is. Poverty is preoccupied with fending for its survival to care for anything better. The middle class is competing with its neighbor for the better car. Its lofty dreams are mostly borrowed. This section of society will tread the beaten path, lest it should soil its new leather shoes in the quest for adventure.
While its origin dates to the early 1980s, the outsourcing industry became quite the rage with big software corporations across the world in 2000. Cheap and extensive labor coupled with a strong basic knowledge of the field stemming from a rigorous and competitive education system, India, became the choice destination for outsourcing IT. Over the years, small enterprises started mushrooming all over the country, providing software services to indigenous companies. This meant more jobs, and by the simple economics of supply and demand, more seats in engineering colleges across the country.
At the turn of the century, rising skylines marked the metamorphosis of a sleepy little city in the south of India into a technology giant. In a handful of years, it was common (and global) knowledge that America had become “bangalored.” A little known fact is that Bangalore itself was irrevocably “bangalored.” The die was cast. Engineers were to be batch-produced henceforth. The field was soon infiltrated; by the art people, the medicine people, and the people in suits among others. On “bangalorisation,” passion was sucked out of the field and its brilliance diluted. The field became everybody’s whore; replete with promises of a life lived later.
When Julia Campbell, the head of a corporation, my firm caters to, came down to India on a visit, she was amazed at the number of working women at the office. When she voiced her surprise, I realized that it’s all a numbers game. There are more girls in classrooms, as opposed to their global counterparts, which naturally translates to there being more of them at the workplace. As one of my female colleagues said, “Everybody in my family is an engineer and I have six siblings including two sisters.” In the subcontinent, everything is hereditary.
The opportunity precedent cannot be ignored; from whichever vantage point you might choose to examine it from. The fact that one can be a bartender by education or a tattoo artist by profession is unlikely to strike a chord with the traditional Indian populace. There is no concept of dignity of labor in the country. It is, in essence, a question of a return on investment where returns might vary from bagging a good marriage proposal to the lucrative jobs that a degree can buy. It is not uncommon, in many parts of India, to print the educational qualification of the couple alongside their names.
In “Paper Tigers”, Wesley Yang writes, “To become a leader requires taking personal initiative and thinking about how an organization can work differently. It also requires networking, self-promotion, and self-assertion….it’s simple cultural observation to say that a group whose education has historically focused on rote memorization and ‘pumping the iron of math’ is, on aggregate, unlikely to yield many people inclined to challenge authority or break with inherited ways of doing things.” He goes on to add: “Here is what I sometimes suspect my face signifies to other Americans: an invisible person, barely distinguishable from a mass of faces that resemble it. A conspicuous person standing apart from the crowd and yet devoid of any individuality. An icon of so much that the culture pretends to honor but that it in fact patronizes and exploits. Not just people “who are good at math” and play the violin, but a mass of stifled, repressed, abused, conformist quasi-robots who simply do not matter, socially or culturally.” This holds true for South Asians to.
The problem begins at the school level. The education system in India is an excessively competitive one. It places emphasis on rote-learning and unreasonably high scores. The Herculean school curriculum notwithstanding, a child is put through a rigorous system of private tuitions. With school, tuitions and tests competing for the child’s time, there’s not much left for a holistic development of the child. Peer, parental and societal pressure weighs heavily on a child’s mind. This translates into relatively weak adults who don’t question the system out of desperation to fit in; fears that have negated independent logic and judgment, and more importantly, rational thought.
The Mass-Production Conundrum
This timidity also boils down to the quantitative arguments involved. Engineers are in such supply that there’s always a replacement should the need arise, so jobs are constantly at stake. Good behavior is often the last refuge of mediocrity. Labor laws are pretty lax in the subcontinent. Employees providing 24/7 support to their counterparts abroad, is not unheard of. In most firms, working seven days a week, fourteen hours a day, without extra pay or perks, isn’t uncommon. Such situations could be avoided if there was a sieve for filtering talent at the entry level, or at any level for that matter. Hiring mediocre engineers leads to “spaghetti programming,” which basically means the process of going around in the ‘code-test-defect-debug-fix’ circle. Needless to say, this costs a person his time, and a company its money.
There are other repercussions of choosing professions at the wholesale market. From the vantage point of the industry, the engineers graduating from the Indian schools of engineering are not industry ready. Most hiring companies put them through a system of extensive and exhaustive training spanning over several months, before they can get any return of their investment. Then there is a distinct lack of creativity stemming from a lack of aptitude. Furthermore, there’s extreme diffidence in laying an idea out on the table. This eliminates any hope for potential innovation. It is no wonder that a country that churns out engineers in obnoxious numbers hardly has any representatives on the global front.
For the individual the picture is bleaker. Slog-fests lead to unhealthy competition. The natural consequence of competition is stress. The threshold for stress is steadily decreasing, mostly as a result of frustration and an acute sense of dissatisfaction. After all, one can pursue an activity without passion for only so long. The other victim of this banal system is the family. With both spouses working, often for long hours, the nuclear family takes the biggest hit. Often there is no time for dinner table conversations and weekend recreation, what with “status calls” averaging well into midnight to keep up with the time-zone incongruity.
Freedom of choice is the luxury of the rich man and the exercise of the rebel. In the face of the mountains of unpaid bills, the question that really arises is how much are you willing to trade for that corner cubicle and the cushy chair?
The Silver Lining
The good news is that change always follows periods of stagnation. While the common man is struggling for the bigger paycheck because the bank still owns his sedan, there are those who are willingly giving up six-figure jobs to pursue their passion. Nipun Mehta, co-founder of ServiceSpace (formerly CharityFocus) is one such man. The Silicon Valley based engineer quit his high paying job with Sun Microsystems to establish the non-profit technology organization. Chetan Bhagat, author of “Five Point Someone,” among other books, is an alumnus of the famous Indian Institute of Technology. The IITs are the Ivy League of India. He gave up a lucrative career at Goldman Sachs to become a full-time author and columnist.
There are others who have chosen less drastic measures to pursue their passion. They have stopped courting the workplace, and are living in perfect work/hobby harmony. Also, the presence of engineers in post-graduate economics, animation, and literature classrooms is steadily increasing. It is not uncommon today to switch careers at saturation point. There are an unprecedented number of engineers turned radio-jockeys, musicians, writers, theatre actors, yoga gurus who have decided to give up the 9-to-9 life in front of the computer.
The individual is definitely getting bolder on the career front. But a close-knit social structure like that of the subcontinent’s, needs a more communal change especially regarding changes in outlook. The subcontinent thrives on relative thinking and living by comparison. If the neighbor’s family is churning out engineers generation after generation, there’s no hope for mine. The country strives, thrives and survives solely on competing with its neighbor. This then, is no country for the excellent guitarist.
The author, formerly a features editor, is a contributing editor for The Missing Slate.